Wednesday, 30 July 2008

God's politics? A response to Jim Wallis (Part Two)

A guest-series by Douglas Harink

Part 2: Whither “God’s Politics”?

As I noted in the last post, in Wallis’s vision the churches do have an important role to play, a contribution to make, an influence to have among the people of God known as America: “The politics of God is often not the same as the politics of the people of God [i.e., America]. The real question is not whether religious faith should influence a society and its politics, but how” (p. 56). “Our religious congregations are not meant to be social organizations that merely reflect the wider culture’s values, but dynamic countercultural communities whose purpose it is to reshape both lives and societies” (p. 7, emphasis added).

As those statements reveal, one of the most remarkable characteristics of Wallis’s vision, obvious on nearly every page, is the thoroughly instrumentalized understanding of religion. God, church, faith, and prophetic religion are all parts of the greater whole which is America, completely absorbed into the discourse of American politics, taken up for use in the cause of the American nation – of a just, compassionate and democratic American nation to be sure, but it is the nation that religious discourse is made to serve as its proper end.

Not only that, but religious discourse must be policed by the discourse of national social and political life. Wallis writes: “We bring faith into the public square when our moral convictions demand it. But to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic discipline religion has to be under [my emphasis] when it brings its faith to the public square… Religious people shouldn’t be told just to be quiet, they should be invited to participate as citizens… [in] the democratic discourse on the most important values and directions that will shape our society” (p. 71).

It becomes clear here and throughout the book that the proposals Wallis makes under the guise of “God’s politics” are in fact all proposals from within the system, for the system, and by the system of a so called democratic society. All discourse about God, faith, and the church is so thoroughly co-opted into the project of making America a better nation, that it is never allowed to fundamentally disrupt the solipsistic discourse of the American social and political project. In other words, there is something fundamentally idolatrous about Wallis’s theological discourse; it is certainly no less idolatrous than the discourse of the Religious Right which Wallis is very good at exposing. Unless Christian discourse about God, faith and the church is allowed in the first place to be absolutely free of its usefulness for Americanism, it will always be idolatrous.

The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is God’s radical and decisive invasion of our humanly constructed worlds, and God’s deliverance from and destruction of the powers that hold us in bondage. The American nation, or the Canadian nation, or any other nation for that matter, is a humanly constructed world; it is a power that enslaves human beings and makes us serve its ends. Every nation is in the first place an idolatrous regime to which God comes in the Gospel to set his people free. Before the church and its discourse can be of any use to American people, it must learn that it does not exist in the first place as America, or to be of use to America, but it exists as the church, constituted in its worship and service of the one true God.

In other words, whether America as such stands or falls – and it will surely one day fall – should not be a matter of primary interest to the churches in America. Indeed, paraphrasing 1 Thess. 1:9-10, the church in America must learn to “turn from the idol America, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead, that is, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.” The problem with the church in North America is not primarily that it has been co-opted by the Right or Left. It is that it has failed to be the ekklesia, a people called out by God from the nations, to be a loyal citizenship of the peaceable regime of the one true God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am more likely to agree than disagree with Wallis on his social and political goals, many of which are already realized in Canada in some measure. I also agree when he argues against privatized faith, and therefore I disagree with the consciousness of many Canadian Christians for whom the privacy of religion is a basic creed. But in fact an understanding of faith or religion as in the first instance precisely personal and private is at the very foundation of Wallis’s vision. He does not question that assumption; he argues instead that faith or religion should not stay private. It should always in one way or another, he says, make the transition through “values” into the public and the political realm. In other words “religious” discourse about God, faith and the church is not in itself intrinsically and immediately political; it gets political by going out of itself, as it were, and translating itself into the political discourses and performances which are always already going on “out there” in the places of worldly power.

Here we come to the heart of Wallis’s failure to resist American idolatry. For he fails to see that the eternal life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God revealed in the Gospel, is the original and true politics. He fails to see that Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, in his life, passion, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension, as narrated in the gospels and in such texts as Phil 2:6-11, is the original and true politics of God on earth, in the flesh, publicly performed for all to see. Wallis fails to see that the chosen people of God, in whom the Spirit works to bring about a faithful political life, is not America but Israel and the church. He fails to see that the first and primary and normative political performance is exclusive worship of the one God revealed in Israel and in Jesus Christ. That is divine politics in the true sense, and one need not and must not go to Ottawa or Washington DC or London to “get political” in the true sense. For, as St Augustine has taught us, in light of the divine politics revealed in the gospel, what goes on as political in those places of worldly power is a parody of politics at best, and a dangerous and deadly illusion at worst.

How then do people get truly political? They believe the Gospel, they are baptized into the body of Christ, they worship the triune God, and they participate in the eucharistic life of the congregation. Only out of this primary and constitutive political performance will the people of God be capable of interrupting, even if only among themselves, the idolatrous and destructive discourses and performances in our nations which go by the name of “politics,” and of speaking the word of truth to the nations for their judgment and healing.

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